A couple of fun articles on the Guardian about how scary books and movies for children should be.
What’s Really Going on With All These Vampires?
“Forget everything you’ve read about vampires so far. The current bloodsucking trend, achieving maximum ferocity in November with the release of the sequel to Twilight, isn’t about outsiders or immigrants or religion or even AIDS, as critics and bloggers have argued ad nauseam these past few months. There’s a much better, simpler, more obvious explanation: Vampires have overwhelmed pop culture because young straight women want to have sex with gay men.”
You Know You Have a Tired YA Fantasy Theme When…
The big trip is coming up soon. I leave for Japan on Friday. 3 Months exploring Asia and Eastern Europe.
In preparation for my visit to Russia and Ukraine I’ve been reading some Russian and Ukrainian books. I think you always get more out of a visit to the country if you know a bit of history. Plus I like to have read some popular authors from that country.
Of course Russia has plenty of the giants of literature (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, etc). I haven’t read them this time, I’ve been aiming at more contemporary work.
Some of the books I’ve read recently:
* The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
A Chinese fox spirit working in Moscow as a prostitute gets involved with a Russian werewolf. It started off interestingly and has some fun ideas, but the story drags to a halt to allow for an endless amount of philosophical discussion. (I like philosophical asides, but some story action is also appreciated).
* The Winter Queen
The first in a series of very popular Russian detective novels. The historical detail is interesting, but I found the main character unlikeable and the prose stilted.
*A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
An elderly pensioner living in the UK brings over a young Ukrainian wife. Some humorous moments, but wasn’t a standout for me.
* Death and the Penguin
In synopsis it sounds great: a Ukrainian obituary writer lives with a penguin (because the local zoo couldn’t afford to feed it). His editor asks him to prepare obituaries of well-known public figures in advance and then these people start dying.
But it’s not nearly as much fun as it sounds and I lost interest halfway through.
* Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy
A Russian journalist’s look at the nastier aspects of the Russian political and military systems. The writer was murdered on Putin’s birthday, a couple of years after the book came out.
* Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People
Some interesting historical details, but the writer spends a lot of time complaining and although he does lots of interviews with people all over Russia, he can’t seem to ask them anything except whether they think they live in a democratic country.
All the details you could ever want about the siege of Stalingrad, supposedly the battle that has cost the most lives in human history. Grim, but fascinating reading. Great source material if you wanted to write a battlefront story.
So, overall the fiction was pretty disappointing. I still have The Secret History of Moscow (Ekaterina Sedia) and The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov) to read.
I lived in Japan for 4 years, so I learned a bit about Japanese science fiction.
In 2007, I went to the WorldCon in Yokohama.
A lot of Japanese SF isn’t translated and so is hidden to English readers.
A new American company, Haikosaru is aiming to translate some of the best of recent Japanese SF.
Haikosaru’s web site claims that -
With a small, elite list of award-winners, classics, and new work by the hottest young writers, Haikasoru is the first imprint dedicated to bringing Japanese science fiction to America and beyond. Featuring the action of anime and the thoughtfulness of the best speculative fiction, Haikasoru aims to truly be the “high castle” of science fiction and fantasy.
One of their first titles is “All You Need is Kill”.
They have an interesting article on some of the differences between American and Japanese SF.
From Warriors of Medieval Japan by Stephen Turnbull
Head collecting is a tradition found throughout samurai history… When a battle was won, the taking, recording and presentation of these ghastly trophies was as systematic and as thorough as the battlefield situation allowed. In an ideal situation of a clear-cut victory the heads would be viewed in a highly ritualized ceremony by the victorious daimyo, who was seated on a camp stool and surrounded by his closest retainers. He would not wish to be presented with a bloody trophy, so the heads were carefully cleaned and dressed, the hair combed, and the resulting trophy made presentable by cosmetics. They would then be mounted on a spiked wooden board with labels for identification.
This routine was a task traditionally done by women, and there exists a rare eyewitness account that was recorded by Oan, the daughter of a samurai. She experienced the horror of sleeping beside a collection of severed heads in Ogaku castle at the time of the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The castle was under constant attack from the superior forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and her description of her work with the heads is a follows:
“My mother and I, as well, as the wives and daughters of the other retainers, were in the castle’s keep casting bullets. Severed heads taken by our allies were also collected in this area of the castle. We attached a tag to each head in order to identify them properly. Then we repeatedly blackened their teeth. Why did we do that? A long time ago, blackened teeth were admired as the sign of a distinguished man. So, we were asked to apply a generous coat of black dye to any heads with white teeth. Even these severed heads no longer held any terror for me. I used to sleep enveloped by the bloody odour of those old heads.”
The invasion of Korea presented the logistical problem of shipping heads home to their commander-in-chief Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi’s increased irrationality made him demand proof that his generals were carrying out his wishes, so a compromise was reached. When Namwon, the first objective of the 1597 invasion, was captured, out of the 3726 heads counted that day only the head of the Korean general was kept intact. The others were discarded after the noses had been removed, the beginnings of the process of nose collection in lieu of heads that was to become a horrible feature of the second invasion. Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to receive a steady stream of shipments of noses pickled in salt and packed into wooden barrels, each one meticulously enumerated and recorded before leaving Korea.
It was also recommended that “samurai should grow moustaches so that their severed heads would not be mistaken for those of women.”
Advice for treating wounded samurai:
Cover the intestines with dried faeces, then close the wound with mulberry root sutures and spread cat-tail pollen over the area. Activities to be avoided were anger, laughter, thought, sex, activity, work, sour foods and sake.
From Lost Japan by Alex Kerr.
Japan is fascinated by secrets. They are the defining feature of the way traditional arts are taught and preserved. They cause problems for governments and business, since different departments of the same organization tend to guard their knowledge jealousy and not speak to one another. In museums, the finer an artwork, the less it will be shown to the public - which is why you will often find that the National Treasure you travelled so far to view is actually just a copy. The real piece stays in storage, and is shown only to a chosen few curators.
This tradition goes back to ancient Shinto, when the objects inside shrines, typically a stone or a mirror, became invested with mystical secrecy. At Izumo, Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine, the object has been hidden from view for so long that its identity has been forgotten; it is referred to merely as "the Object." At the Grand Shrine of Ise, the object is known to be a mirror, but no one has laid eyes on it for at least a thousand years. When asked about Ise, the nineteenth-century Japanologist Chamberlain replied, "There is nothing to see, and they won’t let you see it."
Buddha statues with great power became hibutsu (hidden Buddhas), and were displayed only once every few decades, and there are some that have stayed in hiding for centuries at a stretch.
That evening, we stayed at Kongo Sanmai-in, one of the sub-temples that offer rooms to pilgrims and travellers. We arrived at our lodgings at around half past four. One of the monks asked us if we would like to see the Buddha in the main hall, but we were all exhausted. After an early supper, I went to my room to read a book and relax for a while. That night, on my way to the bath, I passed a monk in the hall. "Good evening," he said pleasantly. "How fortunate for you to have come here today. You were able to see our great Buddha of divine power."
"Well, actually we were planning to see it tomorrow," I said. The monk shook his head. "I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Sanmai-in’s Buddha is a hibutsu. Mt. Koya’s other statues are sometimes put on display, or even lent to other temples and museums. But this one has never left the mountain. This is the first time it has ever been shown to the general public. It’s called a five-hundred-year hibutsu. the doors closed at five o’clock today, and you’ll have to wait another five hundred years if you want to see it."
This was my greatest failure ever as a travel guide. I was so embarrassed that I could not bring myself to confess to my friends, and to this day I don’t believe they realize that they missed seeing a five-hundred year hibutsu by only thirty minutes.
Go to NatCon in Adelaide.
Finish my YA fantasy novel.
Write 3 new short stories.
Finish editing my Clarion stories.
Finish my book about Japan.
Finish my eBook for the iPhone.
Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet.
Learn basic Mandarin.
Learn basic Russian.
Work out where I’m going to visit in Eastern Europe.
Add some photo galleries to my web site.
* Warriors of Medieval Japan
* The Historian
* Mao: The Unknown Story
* Soon I Will Be Invincible
* City of Saints & Madmen
* Bridge of Birds
* The Master & Margarita
* Putin’s Russia
* What I’d Say to the Martians
* Snake Agent
* The Hard-Boiled Wonderland & the End of the World
Learn how to write more realistic To Do Lists.
I recently read Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster. He travels around China by train. He has lots of interesting things to say. Sometimes his attitude can be a bit annoying, but it’s still an interesting book.
Nothing puts human effort into better perspective than a ruined city. "This was once a great capital," people say, pointing to fallen walls and broken streets and dust. Then you stand in the silence of the lifeless place and think of Ozymandius, King of Kings, covered by a sand dune and forgotten. It is very thrilling for an American to consider such a place, because we don’t yet have anything that qualifies - only ghost towns and fairly insignificant small cities, but nothing like the monumental corpses of once-great cities that are known in the rest of the world. Probably American optimism arises from the fact that we don’t have any devastated cities. There is something wearying and demoralizing about a lost city, but it can also give you a healthy disregard for real estate.
I finished a proposal (outline and sample chapters) for a book about weird things from Japan. So will be sending that off to agents.
I sold Love’s Apprentice, a micro fiction story to Thaumatrope.
Have been doing some planning for a YA fantasy novel.
Started work on a new short story. My first post-Clarion South short story.
Had been planning to revise one of my Clarion stories (The Fourth Monkey) but haven’t made much progress with that. Basically starting it from scratch again.
Have also been doing a lot of reading recently.
I read Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife, which is one of the most useful books on writing I’ve ever read.
Been reading some YA fantasy novel. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (which has a really cool premise), Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (beautiful book), James Owens’ Here, There Be Dragons (interesting premise, but the characters weren’t that engaging) and China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. I love Mieville’s other books and while there are some cool things in here, it felt way too long for me.
Also read some more behavioral economics books (why do people do strange things) - Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life and Dan Ariely’s Predictibly Irrational. Both fascinating.
I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. This is the first of the Dexter books. I’m a big fan of the TV series and the book was really enjoyable as well. I think the ending of the first series of the TV show was better than the book’s ending.
Plus some Japanese history books. Now I know all about warrior monks.
This week I got my 200th rejection letter. It was for a story I’d originally written long ago (1998) and revised over the years. I did a major revision after Clarion, and since then it’s earned me a couple more rejection letters. I suspect it soon shall be confined to the Abandoned section of my writing folders.
I submitted my first story to a magazine way back in 1991, when I was still at high school. I like keeping records of things, so I’ve kept track of the number of submissions (both fiction and non-fiction) I’ve made for every year since then. I’ve also kept track of the number of rejection letters. It’s at least an indicator that I’m still working on my writing.
I’ve also been doing a bit of reading in the last month. After seeing the Watchmen movie I read the graphic novel, which I was suitably impressed with.
I read Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, which was a very ambitious book, but didn’t really grab me. I’ve been to Brazil a couple of times and I’m really interested in Latin America, but found the novel’s characters hard to sympathise with. And I’m a bit tired of reading stories where Frank Tipler’s Omega Point plays a role.
I read Summer Knight by Jim Butcher. It’s the fourth Harry Dresden novel, and as usual, was a fun, enjoyable read.
I read Vampire Loves by Joann Sfar. It’s a quirky graphic novel about a vampire and his relationship problems. The start was great, but it started to drift a bit after that.
I’m halfway through Accelerando by Charles Stross. Amazing ideas but hard to get into. It’s a good example of why some people prefer fantasy to sf and why some people prefer sf to fantasy. Me, I love both genres. A sample paragraph:
New discoveries this decade include the origins of the weakly repulsive force responsible for changes in the rate of expansion of the universe after the big bang, and on a less abstract level, experimental implementations of a Turing Oracle using quantum entanglement circuits: a device that can determine whether a given functional expression can be evaluated in finite time. It’s boom time in the field of Extreme Cosmology, where some of the more recherche researchers are bickering over the possibility that the entire universe was created as a computing device, with a program encoded in the small print of the Planck constant.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. The topics it covers -
* Chapter 1: Discovering cheating as applied to teachers and sumo wrestlers
* Chapter 2: Information control as applied to the Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents
* Chapter 3: The economics of drug dealing, including the surprisingly low earnings and abject working conditions of crack cocaine dealers
* Chapter 4: The controversial role legalized abortion has played in reducing crime. (Levitt explored this topic in an earlier paper entitled “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.”)
* Chapter 5: The negligible effects of good parenting on education
* Chapter 6: The socioeconomic patterns of naming children